A land where we live well and happily
*What many Germans hold in their minds
Many Germans may prefer the modesty and incrementalism that have characterized Angela Merkel’s past chancellorships. But a minority government forced to muster coalitions of the willing to address the critical issues confronting Germany and Europe could escape the constraints of such expectations, enabling much-needed reform.
BERLIN – Few people outside Germany are familiar with the caricature of themselves that many Germans hold in their minds. Far from the aggressive bully of twentieth-century war propaganda, the perfectionist engineer of Madison Avenue car advertisements, or the rule-following know-it-all of the silver screen, the German many picture today is a sleepy-headed character clad in nightgown and cap. Sometimes clutching a candle, this German cuts a naïve, forlorn figure, bewildered by the surrounding world.
This figure is not new. On the contrary, referred to as “Der deutsche Michel” or “the German Michel,” it was popularized in the nineteenth century as a character whose limited perspective causes him to shun great ideas, eschew change, and aspire only to a decent, quiet, and comfortable life.
But Michel has now made a comeback. And who can blame him? Germany now boasts a booming economy, near full employment, rising wages, and content unions. The financial crisis is long forgotten, public budgets are under control; and the 2015 influx of migrants has been relatively well managed.
What bad news there is – industrial scandals (like that at Volkswagen), airline bankruptcies, endlessly delayed infrastructure projects – does little to dampen the general sense of safety and wellbeing enjoyed by Germany’s Michels. The only real threat, it seems, is the world outside Germany’s borders.
In this sense, last autumn’s election campaign was perfectly suited to Germany’s Michels. “A land where we live well and happily,” the campaign slogan of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), resonated with them, as did the rather provincial and mostly empty messages of rival parties. With the exception of the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland(AfD), the parties displayed a rote civility and drowsy acceptance of consensus that pacified the electorate.
After the election, the real politicking began, but even then, pains were taken to obscure those activities from Germany’s Michels. Indeed, though party officials had been in place for some time, they waited until the votes were cast before putting their cards on the table, and even then did so behind closed doors. Even the leaks from these closed-door coalition talks were so well managed that they created the illusion that the “Sondierungsgespräche” – that is, the preparatory talks among party officials – were politically rather harmless.
But Germany’s political class, like its ordinary Michels, are in denial. The soporific federal elections, the breakdown of coalition talks among the CDU, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Greens, and the Free Democrats (FDP), and the timid dance between the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) since then all point to a serious deficit in German politics.
The truth is that the various party platforms, meant to inform the electorate and provide a basis for coalition talks, reveal a shocking lack of imagination and paucity of new ideas. Second-order issues are presented as red lines, with largely technical questions – for example, about refugee family reunions, a new health insurance scheme no one asked for (Bürgerversicherung), or the role of the federal government in funding education – taking center stage.
Considering the state of Europe and the world – and the hopes many outsiders are pinning on German leadership – these issues seem rather marginal. But the real problem is that they are distracting from larger issues relating to, say, the euro, security and defense, migration, infrastructure, and taxation.
Lacking any forward-looking political visions, German politics has degenerated to tactical plays being carried out by established players. The CDU, in a War of the Roses with the CSU, can live neither with or without Merkel, while the SPD is unsure of itself and fears further political decline. None of this bodes well for a country whose parliament has already been diminished, after these three parties, during their eight years forming a coalition government, marginalized the opposition and failed to build up new leadership cadres.
Coalition agreements in Germany have always been elaborate documents of a quasi-contractual nature. But there is a growing tendency to plan out four years of governing, with leaders then using legislative periods not to debate laws, but rather to enact previously agreed policies.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: project-syndicate.org